State Capitol Week in Review

September 12, 2014

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department opened bids for 46 projects totaling $231.5 million.

After a review of the bids, if the Commission accepts all of them as submitted they would comprise the largest single bid opening in Arkansas history. It would surpass the previous high bid opening in November of 2012, when bids for $222.5 million of projects were opened.

The recent bid opening included what likely will be the largest contract awarded by the Department, a bid to replace the Broadway Bridge in downtown Little Rock for $98.4 million. It was the lowest of four bids to replace the bridge, and it was submitted by a Kansas City company with extensive experience in major bridge construction.

A recent project completed by the Kansas City firm was the U.S. Highway 82 bridge over the Mississippi River between Lake Village and Greenville, Mississippi. In the 1960s the firm built the Interstate 40 bridge across the Mississippi River at Memphis, and more recently did work on that bridge to make it more able to withstand an earthquake.

The Department has awarded $105 million in construction projects from bids that were opened in July. In June the Department opened bids for projects valued at $92 million.

The major source of revenue for the Highway Department is motor fuels taxes, which have been steadily declining because motorists are buying cars with improved gas mileage. The motor fuels tax is collected by the gallon.

For example, last year it was collected on the sale of 1.97 billion gallons of gasoline, diesel and alternative fuel sold in Arkansas. The previous year it was collected on 2 billion gallons of fuel.

In the 2012 general election Arkansas voters approved a half cent sales tax increase to pay for rebuilding and construction of about 200 four-lane highways to connect all the cities and regions of the state. It is estimated that the half cent tax will generate an additional $230 million a year.

The Highway Department will receive 70 percent and cities and counties will each receive 15 percent. Since the fiscal year began on July 1, the half cent sale tax has generated more than $13 million a month. It is scheduled to expire in 2023.

State Rail Plan

The Highway and Transportation Department is the designated agency to write and renew a state rail plan. It has scheduled a series of public hearings to gather input on amendments to the current plan, which was first written in 1979 and most recently renewed in 2002.

The Department will send the new plan to the federal government. It will be referred to when grants are awarded for projects that affect railroads and their intersections with highways and other modes of transportation and waterways.

The benefits of rail include fuel efficiency. For example, a freight train can haul a ton of merchandise 484 miles on a gallon of fuel. That is almost four times as far as trucks can, according to the Department.

The plan inventories existing rail lines and their uses, such as freight or passenger. In other states commuter lines are important. It also inventories the number of miles of abandoned track in Arkansas.

-- Uvalde Lindsey State Senator, District 4 2257 Gentle Oaks Fayetteville, AR 72703


State Capitol Week in Review

September 12, 2014

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas did more than any other state last year to strengthen laws against human trafficking, according to a national advocacy group called the Polaris Project.

The legislature will build on those accomplishments, judging from the response of the Senate Committee on Children and Youth to recommendations presented by the Attorney General’s State Task Force for the Prevention of Human Trafficking.

A senator on the committee was encouraged by the fact that many of the recommendations focused on improved education and coordination among law enforcement agencies and social service agencies. The cost to taxpayers would be relatively minor, and would greatly benefit victims.

For example, when adolescent females are coerced into prostitution and forced to travel away from home, they are victims of human trafficking. When law enforcement agencies discover them, officers sometimes charge them with a criminal offense because that is a quick method of getting them off the streets and into shelter. New legislation will give law officers more options, so they can take the victims to a social service agency if that appears to be the best choice for the victim.

For about $3.3 million the state could provide services for minors who otherwise would be charged with prostitution or truancy. Services such as creating a “safe harbor” program for juveniles trying to escape from traffickers would be funded by fees imposed on violators of human trafficking laws.

Another recommendation is for more training of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, public defenders and judges, so that they are able to balance their views of human trafficking victims, recognizing them as victims as much as criminals.

Also, the task force recommended adding two employees to the attorney general’s office to staff a clearinghouse for all calls to the Arkansas Human Trafficking Hotline. They would ensure that calls are forwarded to the most appropriate agency. They would also help compile data about human trafficking violations.

One recommendation that may generate opposition would expand the number of public sites where signs would be posted with the Human Trafficking Hotline number. Act 1157 of 2013 requires the signs to be posted at strip clubs, airports, private clubs that serve alcohol but not food, hotels that have been cited as a public nuisance because of prostitution, train stations, bus stations and private businesses that offer showers, fuel, food and bathrooms.

The task force recommended adding campgrounds, state parks, schools from sixth to twelfth grade , restaurants and hotels. However, legislators have already heard concerns from the hospitality industry that wide scale posting of signs at popular tourist destinations may send a message to visitors that Arkansas is a center for human trafficking.

In the 2013 session the legislature enacted several new laws on human trafficking. Statutes already on the books covered sex crimes and kidnapping. The new laws defined human trafficking when minors are victimized and forced into prostitution. They added human trafficking to the list of offenses for which a violator’s motor vehicle or aircraft can be forfeited, if it is used to carry out the crime.

The package of 2013 laws established several of the programs that the legislature will consider expanding in 2015. Generally speaking, they recognize that sexually exploited children should receive social services rather than be prosecuted as criminals.

-- Uvalde Lindsey State Senator, District 4 2257 Gentle Oaks Fayetteville, AR 72703


State Capitol Week in Review

August 29, 2014

LITTLE ROCK – The state’s unemployment insurance trust fund has recovered significantly and by the end of the year will not owe any money to the federal government, the governor announced.

A few years ago the state’s trust fund was in debt to the federal government for $360 million because the severe economic recession in 2008 and 2009 that caused so many people to lose work and file for unemployment. After the state fund was exhausted, it relied on federal subsidies to continue paying unemployment insurance to laid off workers.

When the trust fund operates at a deficit for two or more years, the costs to employers is greater, so the governor’s announcement is good news for Arkansas businesses.

He also announced that besides paying down our debt to the federal government, the trust fund was being built up to about $200 million for use in case the economy takes another downturn.

The legislature took steps to shore up the trust fund soon after it became evident that the economic slump of 2008 and 2009 would deplete it. Act 802 of 2009 increased the amount businesses paid into the fund by raising the threshold at which employers pay a tax into the fund. Previously they paid the tax on the first $10,000 of salary and Act 802 raised that to $12,000.

Act 861 of 2013 reduced benefits to laid off workers to generate savings of an estimated $60 million to $70 million a year.

The act trimmed benefits in several ways, including reducing payments to workers from 26 weeks to 25 weeks. Many workers who were out of work for longer than 25 weeks were eligible for extended benefits from a federal program that is separate from the state’s unemployment insurance fund.

Act 861 also held down expenses from the trust fund by freezing an index that previously had automatically raised benefits as average wages increased.

Elected officials had given serious thought to issuing bonds to cover the debt, and the legislature even authorized the governor to call a special election in the event the state’s political and business leaders chose to issue bonds.

However, in part because of resistance by business owners, bonds were never issued and Arkansas was spared the cost of paying fees and interest that bonds require.

A consequence of the depletion of the trust fund is that legislators learned that the state Department of Workforce Services had overpaid millions to workers who continued to receive unemployment even after they had found new jobs. Legislators directed that the payments be audited to prevent abuse and fraud.

The Department referred fraudulent cases to local prosecutors and 234 people were convicted while 25 saw their cases dismissed because they made restitution to the fund.

Arkansas was one of 35 states that relied on advances from the federal government because their state funds had been drawn down so much.

There are still eight states getting advances and 11 states still owe a total of $14 billion to the federal government. According to the governor’s office, California’s obligations represent about half of the total debt.

-- Uvalde Lindsey State Senator, District 4 2257 Gentle Oaks Fayetteville, AR 72703


State Capitol Week in Review

August 22, 2014

LITTLE ROCK – Almost 60 percent of Arkansas public school students take the bus to school, and each morning they spend an average of about 49 minutes on the bus, according to an extensive survey by legislative analysts. On average, they spend another 49 minutes riding home.

The survey was required by Act 1288 of 2013. Under the Arkansas Constitution it is the legislature’s duty to provide an adequate and equitable education and there is research indicating that lengthy student travel time can have a negative effect on students’ academic achievement levels. It also can limit their opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities.

The longest average rides are by a few students who spend two hours and 47 minutes on the bus each morning, and the same amount of time on the bus going home. They attend magnet schools in Little Rock but live outside the district.

The shortest average times on the bus are for a student who gets to school three minutes after boarding the bus.

The most common bus ride is for 45 minutes to and from school. The 50 percent of students who are in the middle range, in other words those between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile, spend from 35 minutes to an hour on the bus each morning and again on the bus going home.

It’s common for districts to stagger the starting time for elementary, middle and high schools to give bus drivers time to drop off young students and then pick up older ones.

There are 238 school districts in Arkansas and they run 5,360 buses. Every day each bus carries an average of 48 students. Every day, Arkansas school buses drive a total of 5,321 miles.

Bus drivers were paid an average of $9,794 in salary last year.

Over the past 10 years about 60 percent of the public school students in Arkansas have ridden the bus to school. Last year 59 percent of the 460,000 students rode the bus. That is more than 270,000 students.

Arkansas schools spent $184 million on transportation costs in Fiscal Year 2013. Those costs include drivers’ salaries, financing vehicles and maintenance.

It would require more buses and drivers to reduce the long ride times. It would cost $2.7 million to limit all bus rides to 90 minutes, and 106 districts would have to add vehicles and drivers. To limit all bus rides to an hour, it would cost $18.6 million and 124 districts would have to add vehicles and drivers.

Lottery Scholarships

The state Lottery Commission projected that in the current fiscal year $78.2 million will be available for scholarships. In Fiscal 2012 the lottery generated more than $97 million for scholarships, and in the following two years the total fell to $90 million and $81 million.

Lottery experts say that in every state where a lottery is created, revenue tends to decline after a few years because the initial excitement wanes. The legislature has had to reduce scholarship amounts because of declines in lottery ticket sales.

Higher education and lottery officials anticipate that there will be enough money to fund scholarships for all college students whose grades make them eligible this year.

-- Uvalde Lindsey State Senator, District 4 2257 Gentle Oaks Fayetteville, AR 72703


State Capitol Week in Review

August 15, 2014

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature has begun the complex task of providing school districts in Arkansas with expanded broadband access.

Innovations in computers, phones and the Internet are being introduced at an ever faster pace. Schools with outdated equipment risk falling further behind those with newer technology.

One of the first steps toward providing equal educational opportunities to all Arkansas children is to complete an accurate and up-to-date survey of the capabilities of the 238 school districts in the state. The Legislative Council has ordered such a survey to be conducted, and it should be complete before the next regular session.

The survey will assess the equipment now in use by all Arkansas schools, as well as the broadband capacity that is available and at what cost. For the past year there has been an ongoing disagreement among educators, elected officials and private sector Internet providers about the availability and cost of expanded Internet access. The survey is meant to clarify exactly what is available, what is now in use and what would it cost to expand access for each school district.

In addition to school administrators and private Internet providers, there are three advocacy groups that have weighed in on the issue. One was created by the legislature last year with the approval of Act 1280. It is the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee. Its report in May was disputed by spokesmen for private providers, who contend that it was based on incomplete data.

A second group is called the FASTER Arkansas Committee. That stands for “Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results.” Business leaders created the group with encouragement from the governor.

Last week a third group joined the governor at the Capitol to announce its involvement. It is a non-profit organization called EducationSuperHighway. It is funded by private foundations and it helps states and school districts take advantage of high speed Internet to improve education.

According to a survey by EducationSuperHighway that includes 90 percent of all Arkansas school districts, the vast majority of schools purchase additional Internet capacity from private providers at an average price of $13 per megabit of Internet speed. There are 25 districts that purchase Internet access through the state Department of Information Systems (DIS) and they pay $285 per megabit even though their Internet capacity is slower. That is because the DIS connections are along copper wire, rather than fiber optic cable.

The non-profit recommended that rather than paying $15 million a year on copper wire connections, schools instead should spend the same amount for access to providers with optic lines. Doing so would go a long way toward moving Arkansas schools into a new era of high speed Internet access, the head of EducationSuperHighway said.

The survey by EducationSuperHighway found that about half of all Arkansas school districts had sufficient broadband access to meet current federal standards, compared to only 37 percent of schools nationwide.

Act 1280 not only created the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee, it also mandated that high school students take at least one interactive online course as a requirement for graduation, beginning this school year.

-- Uvalde Lindsey State Senator, District 4 2257 Gentle Oaks Fayetteville, AR 72703